Social media's role in Russian meddling: Focus turns to election laws

Amid three U.S. investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, social media companies have said they may have big pieces of the puzzle.
By Danielle Haynes  |  Updated Oct. 20, 2017 at 10:41 AM
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Oct. 20 (UPI) -- A bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation to regulate political ads appearing on digital platforms as U.S. officials dig deeper into Russia's cyberinterference in American elections.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Mark Warner, D-Va., unveiled the Honest Ads Act on Thursday, requiring that political ads sold online be subject to the same rules as ads sold on television, radio and satellite.

"Online political advertising represents an enormous marketplace, and today there is almost no transparency," Warner said. "The Russians realized this, and took advantage in 2016 to spread disinformation and misinformation in an organized effort to divide and distract us."

The Honest Ads Act would:

-- amend existing law defining electioneering communication to include paid Internet and digital advertisements;

-- require digital platforms with at least 50 million monthly viewers to keep files on electioneering communications on groups or individuals spending more than $500;

-- and require digital platforms to make reasonable efforts to ensure foreign nationals aren't purchasing political ads.

Katherine Haenschen, assistant professor in Virginia Tech's Department of Communication, told UPI that under current U.S. law, digital platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter aren't required to disclose who buys political ads. Nor does Facebook require the organizations or individuals that buy ads to show proof that they are registered as a political action committee or super PAC.

She advocates a law requiring tech companies to disclose who is buying ads and how much they're spending as well as who the ads are targeting. On Facebook, for instance, ad buyers can target users with certain demographic backgrounds or interests.

Haenschen said such a law would bring "transparency to process that we don't currently have."

U.S. law says it's illegal for foreign nationals to contribute to U.S. political campaigns, including the funding of ads. Without more transparency on digital platforms, Haenschen says, it's impossible to know if that's happening.

"The purpose of democracy is [for Americans] to select their leaders," she said. "It's not the job of foreign entities to be heavily trying to put their thumb on the scale."

The introduction of the new legislation comes as congressional investigators dig deeper into whether the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and how bad actors may have used social media to do so.

U.S. intelligence agencies -- as well as the Senate intelligence committee -- have said they have conclusive evidence Russia interfered in the election.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Thursday she considers this cyberinterference an act of "warfare."

"When a country can come interfere in another country's elections, that is warfare," she said at a panel at the George W. Bush Institute in New York City. "It really is because you're making sure the democracy shifts from what the people want to giving out that misinformation. And we didn't just see it here. ... They are doing this everywhere and this is their new weapon of choice."

Facebook, Twitter and Google said they have discovered scores of ads and phony accounts linked to Russia, some of which explicitly mentioned the election. Others broached divisive topics like racism, gun control and immigration.

Congressional investigators are attempting to discover to what extent the ads and posts could have swayed voters' opinions.

Members of the House intelligence committee will get their chance to answer some of these questions on Nov. 1, when representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google are scheduled to be asked about the questionable postings they've seen.

Haenschen said she'd like these hearings to uncover when these companies first learned about the possibility of Russian interference and what steps employees took in response.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was initially reticent to acknowledge the company played any role in the spreading of misinformation during the campaigns. He later said he regretted calling the idea "crazy," but Haenschen said she's not convinced the tech companies weren't aware of Russians using the platforms.

"I am highly skeptical that these tech platforms were not aware that something was amiss ... in the case of Facebook with these Russian operatives running these pages," she said. "I'm likewise skeptical that Twitter didn't realize they have a massive Russian bot problem."

Haenschen said tech companies should provide more leadership in terms of how their platforms influence society, calling for "more human involvement, more human judgment."

Facebook

Facebook was the first of the tech giants to report the possibility that Russian actors used phony accounts to sway the election.

In an internal investigation, Facebook discovered it sold some 3,000 ads between June 2015 and May 2017, for about $100,000, to what it described as "inauthentic accounts." The accounts "were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia," the company said in a blog post Sept. 6.

Facebook launched its inquiry after the company came under fire for being a platform for the sharing of inaccurate political news.

The company said the "vast majority" of the ads didn't specifically mention the presidential election, though some did mention then-Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

"Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum -- touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights," Facebook wrote.

Facebook ultimately gave congressional investigators information on about 3,000 ads it sold to Russia-linked accounts. Though the company hasn't publicly released the details, some have trickled out.

Citing sources knowledgeable about the ads, CNN reported that suspect accounts bought an ad targeted at people in Baltimore, Md., and Ferguson, Mo., one of the roughly 750 advertisements that had a geographical focus.

The report said the ad geared toward those two cities was purchased to convey a message that could be interpreted as supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, while also seemingly threatening some local residents.

One group of posts promoted by a phony, Russia-linked group calling itself Secured Borders, said "the only viable option is to elect Trump."

"How dare they accuse Donald Trump of racism and sexism just because he's concerned about the well-being of Americans??" one post said.

Neither Zuckerberg nor Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg are expected to appear at the Nov. 1 public hearings with Congress. Instead, the company is sending Colin Stretch, vice president and general counsel. Stretch previously worked at the Washington law firm Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick and served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Instagram

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said some Russian-linked ads also appeared on the photo-sharing app. About 5 percent of the 3,000 ads it shared with Congress also appeared on Instagram.

The social media company said about $6,700 was spent on the Instagram ads from 2015 to earlier this year. It's unclear how many people viewed the ads, but Facebook estimated about 10 million users saw them when they appeared on Facebook.

Facebook said the ads originated from a Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency, and violated the social network's policies against using inauthentic accounts.

Twitter

After Twitter representatives met with Senate staff in a closed-door meeting on Sept. 28, the social media company publicly released a report about manipulative accounts on its platform.

Twitter's report also centered on the possible spread of divisiveness leading up to the election.

Of the 450 or so "inauthentic" accounts Facebook shared through its own review, Twitter said 22 corresponded with accounts on its platform -- and all were suspended.

Twitter added that it found another 179 associated accounts, but none were registered as an advertiser.

It didn't cite specific data, but Twitter noted in its report that Russia and Soviet-associated nations "have been a primary source of automated and spammy content on Twitter for many years."

Twitter's report also highlighted the role of Russia Today, the Kremlin-owned TV news channel, on its platform. The company said RT-linked accounts spent $274,100 on promoted tweets last year -- 1,823 of which were pushed by @RT_com, @RT_America and @ActualidadRT and targeted or may have targeted U.S. users.

Warner criticized Twitter's information as merely a follow-up to what Facebook had already disclosed and said Twitter's disclosures were "frankly inadequate on every level."

Google

In early October, Google also said it had uncovered ads that were purchased by Russian accounts. Those ads, it said, possibly spread misinformation around the election.

Company officials said the advertising appeared on Google-owned YouTube, its search advertising, Gmail advertising and its DoubleClick ad platform.

Google has more than 40 percent revenue share for digital advertising in the United States, and its YouTube platform is the largest online video service in the world.

The Russian ads appearing on Google platforms cost a total of about $100,000, the company said, and supported Trump, Democrat Bernie Sanders and Green Party candidate Jill Stein during the campaign. Other ads promoted anti-immigrant sentiment and racial animosity.

"We are taking a deeper look to investigate attempts to abuse our systems, working with researchers and other companies and will provide assistance to ongoing inquiries," Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville said Oct. 9.

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